Building muscle can be a simple equation: eat, train, sleep, repeat.
But often one or more of these factors is overlooked, overworked, or not done as consistently.
If you overlook the importance of diet, or work too hard in the gym, you may not reach your goal as quickly or efficiently as possible.
Many people think that the more time you spend in the gym, the closer you are to meeting your goals, particularly if the goal is hypertrophy (building muscle).
I often see people in the gym for 2 hours at a time, 6 days a week, doing endless different exercises for the same muscle group.
Though you may be able to see results this way, you are wasting a lot of time. Results can be achieved quicker and more efficiently without spending your whole life in the gym, as long as you know the science behind building and maintaining muscle mass.
Alongside correct diet and sleep, to build muscle it is important to consider the load and volume of the weight lifted during each workout to ensure you are targeting all the mechanisms that elicit hypertrophy.
Sometimes lifting as heavy as possible for as many reps and sets as possible will actually do more harm than good.
Hypertrophy depends on three main mechanisms:
- Mechanical tension
- Metabolic stress
- Muscle damage
1. Mechanical Tension
The phrase ‘time under tension’ refers to the mechanical tension that muscles are under during an exercise. Mechanical tension can be active, meaning muscles are flexed in isometric contraction or passive, meaning that muscles are stretched without contraction. A maximal hypertrophic response is triggered when mechanical tension is created during a full range of motion in an exercise. This is because both active and passive tension is created.
Passive tension will help to activate the mind to muscle connection during an exercise which will act as a cue for the muscle to start responding to tension. However, passive tension alone will not lead to the hypertrophy of a muscle. But when it is combined with active tension in a full range of motion the time under tension is increased, the muscle is properly activated and so is worked in full capacity.
Your muscles do not know the size of weights you use, they only know how much tension is being created. Although more tension is often created when the weights increased, it can also prevent the exercise being completed in a full range of motion which is counterproductive.
Completing an exercise slowly with a weight that you are able to use with the full range of motion, with a pre-activated muscle, is the most effective method to create mechanical tension and trigger growth.
Tip: Try 3 second pauses in the eccentric phase (where the muscle is lengthened under tension) of an exercise, for example when the weight is lowered to your chest in a bench press. Work in a 6-12 rep range for 3-4 sets, with a 1.5-2 minute interval between sets.
2. Metabolic Stress
Muscles need to be placed under metabolic stress to trigger a hypertrophic response. During a hard workout you may notice your muscles are ‘pumped’, this is when there is a build up of blood and an oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) in the muscle. Metabolites have built up during this process, including phosphate, hydrogen, lactate and glucose metabolite which cause the pump sensation.
This indicates that micro muscle tears have occurred during the workout which means the muscle will need to adapt, repair and ultimately grow in size to protect against future micro tears. This is why it is important to increase your weights in the gym so you are able to create enough metabolic stress to induce muscular tears to constantly repair and grow larger.
Tip: To achieve a pump, you need to be working in a high rep range: 12-20+ reps for 3-4 sets with less than a minute interval between each set. Do these sets with a weight you can lift at a RPE (rate of perceived exertion) of 4-6 for the given number of reps and complete until failure to activate the response system.
3. Muscle Damage
When you get out of bed the next day following a hard leg workout you may find it hard to walk, this is an example of delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMs). Though not directly correlated, it is an indicator of muscle damage.
When mechanical tension and metabolic stress take place, micro-tears and muscle damage occurs prompting muscle fibers to recover by becoming stronger and enlarged. This hypertrophic process is dependent on taking enough time to repair the muscular damage as well as practicing correct nutrition and sleep, otherwise you may get injured or cause more harm than good.
Tip: Extreme muscle damage will require long resting periods between workouts. Deciding a body part split that focuses on varying volumes and loads will be more effective by allowing you to train more regularly.
For example if you train a muscle once a week, the level of muscular damage can be more intensive (high load and volume) because the muscles will have a week to recover. However if you train a muscle more than once a week, it is important to decrease the load and volume to maximize recovery before the next workout.
How to Maximize Hypertrophy
It has been shown in various scientific research1 that training 4-5 times per week with around 4-5 exercises per muscle group is a more effective way of growing rather than training once weekly very intensely. It is important to ensure there is an effective and proportionate amount of mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage in each workout to trigger the maximal hypertrophic response and sustain muscle growth over time.
If your goal is to build muscle, you need to understand how muscle can be built. The three mechanisms mentioned are how your muscles tear, repair and grow. When these are practiced consistently in training, combined with sufficient repair time and correct nutrition you will spend less time in the gym and see better, quicker results.
- Use a full range of motion during an exercise.
- Complete exercises slowly with a pre-activated muscle.
- Incorporate low load high volume exercises for the pump.
- Take time to repair muscle damage.
- Fisher, James, et al. "Evidence-based resistance training recommendations." Med Sport 15.3 (2011): 147-162.
- Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. "Muscular adaptations in low-versus high-load resistance training: A meta-analysis." European journal of sport science 16.1 (2016): 1-10.
- Schoenfeld, Brad J., et al. "Muscle activation during low-versus high-load resistance training in well-trained men." European journal of applied physiology 114.12 (2014): 2491-2497.